The oil change is the most basic of automotive maintenance. But in these days of technological change, nothing stays the same. And that goes for oil changes too.
They’re not as simple or straightforward as they used to be. There are some new steps and some new things to watch for. And while oil still has to be changed on a regular basis, the intervals are constantly stretching, as carmakers try to reduce the inconvenience to their customers.
The pressure is on to keep oil changes to the absolute minimum – in cost, time, and frequency – even though the value of the engines is increasing, and their need for clean lubrication hasn’t diminished at all.
These days, you need to understand what you’re getting into before you drain the crankcase because even a small oil-change hiccup can lead to very expensive problems.
And to cap it all off, the aftermarket has trained customers to resent paying more than $20 for this essential service! How’s that for a challenge?
Well, here are five ways oil service is changingý and some tips on how to prevent problems from developing.
Special oil requirements
The days of simple 5W30, 10W30 or "diesel oil" are over.
Many common vehicles have very specific oil recommendations. They may use synthetic oil only. Or the relatively new 5W20 viscosity. Or a particular brand of "long life oil."
Often these recommendations can’t be substituted with another type of oil. Trying to do so may cause expensive problems and leaves you vulnerable to comebacks.
The reasons for the recommendations vary, but the bottom line is, make sure you know what oil the car needs, have it in stock, and don’t make substitutions.
And be sure to factor the cost of the special oil into the final cost of the oil change. These days $19.99 may not even cover the cost of the oil!
Special filters and tools
Cartridge-style oil filters aren’t new. Neither are the strange tools required to access them. But many filter covers are now made from softer, more pliable materials and the O-rings may not be reusable. What’s more, the covers may break or tear if the wrong tool is used or if the cover was over-torqued at the last service. That means trouble.
Make sure you have the right filter for the vehicle, as well as any O-rings, gaskets or seals that you’ll need after the filter comes out. Also use the right tool to remove the cover – the claw or vise grips are not the best choice. And, of course, remember to wipe the area clean and check for leaks before the vehicle leaves.
Special monitors and sensors
Certain manufacturers have dramatically extended the recommended intervals between oil changes. To accomplish this, some have begun using "long-life" oils or by equipping the vehicle with an oil-quality sensor. These are found either in the oil pan or on the output side of the oil filter. They measure the oil’s dielectric constant, which, along with the voltage, will increase as the oil breaks down.
Some manufacturers just use a mathematical formula relating to monitoring temperatures and speeds to determine when the oil needs changing.
Still others use a combination of sensors and formulae to determine the usable life of the oil.
Whatever the method, resetting the oil life monitor correctly is essential; be sure this is possible and that you can do it before you open the crankcase. Newer vehicles may need the oil-life monitor reset with a scan tool or may need to reach a certain temperature before the level can be checked. It’s best to know these things before you drain. Quickly flipping through the owner’s manual can save time later on.
Special service procedures
Hybrids are neat. Probably the most memorable thing about driving one is the feeling of backing out of a parking space without the engine running.
Unfortunately, until this technology is more familiar, there will be those technicians who assume that if the engine isn’t running the vehicle’s fine to work on. This error can be expensive and deadly.
Hybrid vehicles bring new challenges and demand new repair and service techniques. The good news is that hybrid service information is becoming easier to obtain, and motorists who drive these eco-friendly vehicles usually have a bit more money and don’t mind spending on quality work.
A good hybrid training course can easily pay for itself. Understand when and why to keep the keys out of the vehicle (the vehicle may start if the keys are simply inside the vehicle, bad news if the oil is draining out!) and when and how to power down the vehicle (check the manual – seriously!) to prevent problems.
Hybrids are not the scary challenges some techs fear. Quite the contrary. Specializing in hybrid vehicles may be a great way to expand your business since so many shops (including dealers) shy away from them. But good quality training is important and worth looking into. (Excellent web site: Craig Van Batenburg’s www.auto-careers.org.)
Special sensitivity to contamination
Clean engine oil has always been important. But with new technologies like variable-valve timing and variable-displacement engines, this is more important than ever.
Engines that depend on tiny, machined valves and passages to run properly (locking cams together or the like) can’t have sludge, goo, or debris causing the valves to stick or messing up the precisely timed processes.
If an engine problem causes contamination in the oil, either from an internal leak or a failed component, consult the service information for the proper procedure before releasing the vehicle to the customer. It may be more than just a simple oil change. Modern engines are not as tolerant of contamination as engines of past times. Near surgical cleanliness may be in order to prevent problems.
These days even the basic oil check is going high-tech.
If you want to keep doing oil changes on late-model cars, you have to know how the service is changing. It’s nothing you can’t handle with some preparation and planning.
Technology and customers may change, but regular oil changes are still essential for problem free driving – even if customers don’t enjoy paying a fair price for the work.
Don’t sell yourself short. Bargain shoppers are not be the customers you want anyway. The most important thing is still to keep your best customers happy by making sure their vehicles are serviced correctly.
You may have been changing oil the same way for years without problems, but it may be time to rethink your strategy to keep the service profitable and rewarding.
EDITOR’S NOTE ASE certified technician Claire Newman has been licensed since 1994 and has attained GM Grandmaster status since 2001. She has worked at a number of dealerships and independent repair shops, including a specialty race shop.